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By Robert Rapier on Jul 4, 2009 with no responses

“Your Passion is Energy”

Saying Goodbye Again

Today is Independence Day in the U.S., but I am spending it in the Netherlands without my family. This has become an all-too-familiar situation for me. I have spent far too many birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays in remote locations away from my family. The time has come to rectify that situation.

Most of my career has revolved around energy. But about a year and a half ago, I decided to try something slightly different. I left my job with ConocoPhillips in Aberdeen, Scotland (and I explained the details behind the decision here), said goodbye to friends and colleagues there, and boarded a plane to the Netherlands. This is where I have spent about half my time since then.

But that chapter is coming to a close. On Monday I will leave Amsterdam for the flight back to Texas. I have made this trip around 20 times in the past 18 months, but I am making the trip for the last time in my current role as Engineering Director for Accsys Technologies. This trip was my farewell tour, and I said my goodbyes to a fine engineering team.

The past year and a half has been both interesting and challenging. We are a small company, so I found myself doing more cross-functional work than at any other time in my career (e.g., writing HR policies). We were staffing up, so I also interviewed numerous people for all sorts of positions. Because our company was the first (and still only) to commercialize our technology, we encountered some unique engineering challenges.

As I look back, I am proud of what my engineering team has accomplished. They have vastly improved our process in the past two years, and we climbed a steep learning curve. We managed to increase the throughput of our plant in Arnhem by a third, while at the same time cutting our energy inputs. With all sincerity, our successes came about because I have a clever and dedicated team of engineers.

And while I believe strongly in the product that we have developed, my job involves about 50% travel. I have engineering teams based in Dallas and in the Netherlands, and I have to try to keep a presence in both locations. I knew that I could keep that up for a while, but not forever. If I continue with this schedule, I will grow old forever haunted by the lyrics to Cat’s in the Cradle.

I have been fortunate over the years to have had a number of different job opportunities present themselves. In the past six months I began to more seriously listen to inquiries. I decided if the right one came along – and it enabled me to spend more time with my family – then I would make a change. The right opportunity has come along.

Future Plans

If I had to describe my ideal job, it would be to bring sustainable energy technologies to the world. I would do a lot of technology evaluation, visiting with universities, small companies, inventors, and entrepreneurs. The goal would be to identify the renewable technologies that I feel can compete in the long-term, and then work to facilitate that future.

One of the most brilliant engineers I have ever met (who will also be a future colleague), recently introduced me to a very successful businessman who has been in the energy business for decades. Because he greatly values his privacy, I will not divulge his name nor the companies he has been involved with. Suffice to say that his vision is long-term, he is realistic, and he has a long track record of successfully building companies. When I met with him, I discussed my current job, and then we started talking about our views on the future of energy. He made a comment that I often hear when I am discussing energy: “Your passion is energy. You should follow your passion.”

After much discussion, which included meetings in Houston, Hawaii, and Hamburg – it was clear that my goals and views were very much aligned with his. We saw a similar future, but were both quite realistic about the challenges of realizing that future. The primary objective for both of us wasn’t to create wealth, but instead to see our current unsustainable way of life nudged toward something more sustainable. We are both concerned that we are leaving a mess for our children to clean up, and we believe we can build something better for them.

I have therefore decided to join forces with him, and will leave my current job on August 1st. I will continue to assist Accsys/Titan Wood with their technology on an as-needed basis, but my primary energies will be focused around the conversion of biomass into value-added products. The specific end product will depend upon the particulars of a situation. I firmly believe that biomass can work, sustainably, in specific niches. As fossil fuel prices rise, the niches will grow as long as the biomass technologies are not heavily dependent upon fossil fuel inputs. We plan to establish ourselves in some of those niches.

I have written in this blog about some of the technologies and companies that we will be involved with. (In fact, it is a long story, but one of my articles was what led to the initial contact, which occurred almost 3 years ago). Other technologies, which I have felt had great potential, I haven’t written about. I am still not yet going to write about them, as we are busy establishing ourselves in various areas and establishing dialogue with different companies. But as one of my new colleagues likes to say “We are technology agnostic.” That simply means that we are open to different technologies and won’t base our business around a single technology.

I will relocate to Hawaii with my family. I estimate that my travel will drop from the current 50% to around 10%, meaning I will get to spend much more time with my family. Based on our plans, when I do travel, I expect my travels will take me to Germany, which is familiar territory, but also to some areas I have not seen, like Southeast Asia.

Why Hawaii? Hawaii offers a unique laboratory for renewable energy. Hawaii has very good renewable resources (sun, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass, etc.), and no fossil fuel resources. Hawaii should have a small bias toward renewable energy relative to the rest of the U.S., since all fossil fuels must be shipped in for power and transport. And because of the year-round growing season, I can do a lot more experimentation there both with gardening (which I love to do) and with energy crops.

I won’t go into specific details right now about our efforts. We aren’t ready for that yet. Some parts of the business are already far along, and others are just starting. But we won’t be messing around with pie-in-the-sky technologies. That will be one of my key roles: To make sure we are focused where we need to be focused and not wasting our time working toward dead ends.